Pea-'n-squash bedmates

I tried something a little different this year in a 4-by-22-foot garden bed. When an early October frost ended its productivity, the 88 square feet of garden space had yielded 15 pounds of shelled green peas and 127 pounds of winter squash. That's 1.61 pounds of palate-satisfying food per square foot of garden space which, with a little care, will be increased next season.

The peas now are in the freezer; the squash will be stored on racks in the cellar for the better part of six months.

Now, while peas are a perfectly natural crop in a bed of this size, the vigorous, rambling vines of the butternut winter squash are not. Nor is it considered normal to follow peas with winter squash, because the squash should be up and growing vigorously before the peas (30-inch-tall Lincolns in this instance) are harvested in mid- to last June.

This is how it was done: Because a mulch of shredded leaves had covered the bed all winter long, the soil was soft when it came time to sow peas in early spring. I simply raked back the mulch before planting. (Had the soil been compacted, conventional digging would have been a must.)

Next, I planted two rows of peas in broad bands, 12 inches wide and 12 inches apart, down the length of the bed and erected a low, 30-inch fence of chicken wire on the inside of each row. In other words, the 12-inch center strip became a fenced passageway.

This was done to provide support for the peas as well as to keep the center strip largely clear of the pea vines. The importance of this plan is obvious, because the squash would be planted in the center strip before the peas were taken out.

Four hills of squash were sown in that center strip during the last week in May, which were thinned to one squash per hill once the seedlings were up and growing well. By the time the squash had begun to ramble, the pea vines had matured their crop and were cut down.

Even with the pea vines gone, a 4-foot-wide bed is considered inadequate for winter squash. As the vines grew I trained them lengthwise down the bed, although a profusion of side shoots soon made this impossible. The answer, once the bed was entirely covered with squash vines, was to pick up any new vines as they grew away from the bed and throw them back on top of the other vines.

By mid-August I began cutting off all the new shoots that strayed from the bed.

It didn't seem to matter that the bed was a tangle of squash vines all growing one on top of the other. Fruit set moderately well and grew to a satisfying size. Certainly that bed's per-square-foot productivity was much higher than another area of the garden where the vines had considerably more room to grow. The narrow garden bed, however, did have the more fertile soil.

That soil fertility came from the half inch or so finished compost that was applied when the peas were planted, as well as the two or more inches of shredded leaves applied gradually as a mulch as the peas grew.

Also, because the pea vines had been cut down rather than uprooted, the nitrogen-rich pea roots were left intact in the soil to feed the growing squash. In addition, the pea vines, once cut, were left on the bed as a mulch.

Next year I plan a similar program, but with some modifications. I shall choose a more dwarf variety of pea (Sparkle, perhaps) because the tall Lincolns shaded the squash seedlings too much and slowed their early development. One option would be to sow the entire bed to shorter variety of peas, leaving a number of circles clear in which the squash seeds will be sown.

Another improvement would probably be to grow the more compact variety of squash, such as Early Butternut Hybrid. There seems no reason, either, why melons or cucumbers might not be grown this way.

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